Since 2018 is going to bring its fair share of formaldehyde discussions, it is a good time for a review. I asked Sarah Jane Scruggs of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) Formaldehyde Panel to tell us about the chemical itself.
Sarah, thanks for doing this. Before we start, can you tell us something about the ACC?
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) represents a diverse set of companies engaged in the business of chemistry. Our companies make the products that make modern life possible. Our products help protect our food supply, air and water, ensure safe living conditions, provide access to efficient and affordable energy sources and lifesaving medical treatments in communities around the globe, as well as improve the technology, durability and sustainability of consumer products.
To enable these ongoing innovations, we advocate for public policies that support the use of best available science in the regulation of these groundbreaking products. We are committed to fostering progress in our economy, environment and society. We believe that Americans should expect that high quality science is the foundation of government regulations. Government policy must require that regulators’ decisions are risk-based, based on the best available science, incorporate a weight of the evidence approach to evaluating data, consider research integrity and ensure that studies have undergone a balanced peer review.
And what do you guys know about formaldehyde?
I think a lot!
Seriously, since its discovery in 1859, formaldehyde has become one of the most-well studied compounds in commerce.
Formaldehyde is found all around us and is even present in low levels within our body. It occurs naturally, in living cells, and is exhaled in human breath. For example, humans produce about 1.5 ounces of formaldehyde a day as a normal part of our metabolism. Formaldehyde is also a natural by-product of combustion processes, such as forest fires, automotive exhaust and cooking. It is also naturally present in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats and beverages; it’s even in trees. To see where formaldehyde occurs all around us, click here.
In addition to its place in the natural environment, formaldehyde is a key ingredient in the development of a variety of everyday items.
Formaldehyde plays an integral role in a wide variety of industrial applications across the automotive, aviation, textile, energy and building and construction industry sectors. In many instances, because of formaldehyde’s unique physical and chemical properties, few compounds can replace it as a raw material without reducing performance and making the final products more expensive. Whether it’s used in plywood for home construction, fuel system components for automobiles or door and window insulation for modern airliners, formaldehyde provides greater utility for consumers in the form of extended use, consistent quality and improved performance and safety.
Why is formaldehyde used in so many different industries?
The ability for formaldehyde, in combination with countless other molecules, to chemically react and subsequently build resilient structures makes it one of the most functionally important chemical building blocks in manufacturing today. While formaldehyde is an essential building block in a diverse range of products, its end use is primarily in a converted form. That means virtually all the formaldehyde is consumed in making the final product.
So while I don’t like to use the word “safe,” since it’s not scientific, tell me why this wide use of formaldehyde shouldn’t be a concern.
A large body of scientific evidence shows that formaldehyde does not accumulate in people or animals because it is quickly broken down by the body’s natural metabolic processes. In the environment, formaldehyde is quickly broken down in the air by moisture and sunlight, or by bacteria in soil or water. Numerous studies show that levels of formaldehyde normally found in homes and offices are close to naturally occurring background levels.
Additionally, extensive reviews of formaldehyde emissions sources have been conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), Environment Canada and Health Canada and other scientific groups. The majority of the reviews found that indoor air concentrations in Europe and the USA were below 100 μg/m3 and the average home ranged between 5 and 60 μg/m3 (Salthammer et al. 2010; Sarigiannis et al. 2011). This is why the World Health Organization set protective indoor air guidelines for formaldehyde at 80 ppb in 2010. The guidelines were re-evaluated in 2016 and found to still be protective of human health. Moreover, formaldehyde levels in typical indoor environments are well below concentrations that could trigger sensory irritation.
We need to remember that formaldehyde is a natural part of our world and is found in every living system – from plants to animals to humans. It also occurs as a by-product from all combustion processes, such as forest fires, automotive exhaust and cooking. Low levels of formaldehyde occur naturally in a variety of fruits and vegetables. Finally, formaldehyde is found naturally in rural, urban and indoor air, and can be found at very low levels in many household products. Years of research and the latest scientific information help determine safe exposure levels for formaldehyde.
High-quality science is critical and when poor-quality science is released (and sensationalized by misleading headlines) the public is misinformed. We’ve seen too many times how this can lead to unfounded public alarm and unnecessary costs impacts to consumers and businesses. Whether it’s used in plywood for home construction, fuel system components for automobiles or door and window insulation for modern airliners, formaldehyde provides greater utility for consumers in the form of extended use, consistent quality and improved performance and safety.
Thanks, Sarah. Let’s dig into that further next week. In the meantime, readers can find more information at the American Chemistry Council’s Formaldehyde Panel Page.